The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers, was a Protestant religious denomination that originated in Manchester, England in 1747 in the home of Jane and James Wardley. The Shakers developed from the religious group called the Quakers which developed in the 17th century. Both groups believed that everybody could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals, but the Shakers tended to be more emotional and demonstrative in their worship. Shakers also believed that their lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection and continuously confessing their sins and attempting to stop sinning.
The 17th century was fraught with religious turmoil due to constant fighting between Protestants and Catholics. Religious wars led many to believe that the Millennium was at hand, and spirit possession began manifesting itself in many new forms. The 18th century saw the largest number and most diverse of these possessions, including visions, prophecy, and trances. These movements became a part of the more general religious awakening that spread through most of continental Europe north of the Alps between the late 17th century and 1740s, affecting the British Isles and the American colonies as well. Half a century later, the United States and England saw an emergence of many radical religious groups who formed Utopian societies including the Oneida community, Millerites, Rappites and of course, the Shakers.
The Shakers focus on two moments as being the most influential in the origin of their movement. The first is 1706 with the coming of five “French prophets” to London, well recorded in historical sources as camisards from the Cévennes Mountains in the south of France. The name “Camisards” was the term that French Protestant militants bestowed upon themselves when they waged a five-year insurrection against Louis XIV, who was trying to stamp out Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. The Camisards were defeated and forced to join the thousands of Huguenot exiles living in Protestant territories in France, England, South Africa, North America, and elsewhere. The five French Prophets must have been amidst these exiles. The second date that Shakers focus on is 1747, when Mother Ann Lee first made contact with James Wardley, a preacher who maintained a small group with the “possession by the spirit” reminiscent of the French prophets.
The Shakers built 19 communal settlements that attracted some 200,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. Turnover was very high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1840, but as of 2006 had only four members left. Only a few of the original Shaker buildings are still in use today.
(Note: The Shaker community north of Albany was called by Shakers "the Niskayuna community." The township they were in was then officially called Watervliet, although they bordered Niskayuna, the adjacent township to the northwest in Schenectady County. The township of Watervliet is now the township of Colonie (since 1895), and the name Watervliet is now limited to only the incorporated City of Watervliet (1896). This has led to some confusion, but the best method is to use the name the Shakers used for their community, Niskayuna. It is also fairly common to refer to the members there as Niskayuna Shakers.)
A spiritualistic revival in New Lebanon, some forty miles away, sent many penitents to Niskayuna, who accepted Mother Ann's teachings and organized in 1787 (before any formal organization in Niskayuna) the New Lebanon Society, the first Shaker Society, at New Lebanon (since 1861 called Mt. Lebanon), Columbia County, New York. The Society at Niskayuna organized immediately afterwards, and the New Lebanon Society formed a bishopric. The Niskayuna Shakers, as pacifists and non-jurors, had gotten into trouble during the American War of Independence.
Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Pittsfield, Massachusetts; in 1791 at Harvard, Massachusetts; in 1792 at East Canterbury, New Hampshire (or Shaker Village); and in 1793 at Shirley, Massachusetts; at Enfield, Connecticut (then also known as Shaker Station); at Enfield, New Hampshire (or "Chosen Vale"); at Tyringham, Massachusetts, where the Society was afterwards abandoned, its members joining the communities in Hancock and Enfield; at New Gloucester, Maine (since 1890: "Sabbathday Lake"); and at Alfred, Maine, where, more than anywhere else among the Shakers, spiritualistic healing of the sick was practiced. In Kentucky and Ohio, Shakerism entered after the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival of 1800–1801, and in 1805–1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Mercer County, Kentucky.
In 1811 a community settled at Busro on the Wabash in Indiana; but it was soon abandoned and its members went to Ohio and to Kentucky. In Ohio later communities were formed at Watervliet, Montgomery and Greene counties, and at White Water, Butler and Hamilton counties. In New York, the communal property at Sodus Bay was sold in 1828 and the community removed to Groveland, or Sonyea; their land here was sold to the state and the few remaining members went to Niskayuna. A short-lived community at Canaan, was merged into the communities in Mount Lebanon (in New Lebanon) and Enfield, Connecticut.
The peak decreased rapidly, probably from 4,000 in 1887 to 1,000 in 1908, and there has been little effort made to plant new communities. The Mt. Lebanon Society in 1894 established a colony at Narcoossee, Florida; the attempt of the Union Village Society in 1898 to plant a settlement at White Oak, Georgia, was unsuccessful. In 1910 the Union Village Society went into the hands of a receiver.
At various times, the Shakers had eighteen major communities in eight states and six smaller communities in Florida and Indiana. The city of Shaker Heights, Ohio, population 29,000, a suburb of Cleveland, was originally a Shaker settlement.
The lands of the Niskayuna settlement were sold off in parcels, the last plot was purchased by Albany County in 1929 to establish a nursing home. A large portion of this property later became the site of the Albany International Airport. The Ann Lee Home museum now consists of the 1848 Shaker Meeting House, several Shaker buildings, a large 1916 barn with some animals, a heritage herb garden and the Shaker Cemetery where the society founder, Ann Lee, and other early Shakers are buried. Much of the Mt. Lebanon community is now a private boarding school, yet retains much of its original beauty. There is a small museum on the site. The Hancock Shaker Village just across the Massachusetts state line is extensive, focusing on lifeways of the Shakers and Shaker arts. The Enfield, New Hampshire site is now a Catholic convent.
Today there are but a handful of Shakers remaining, all living at Sabbathday Lake, Maine .
The nature of the Shaker religion set men and women equal to one another in religious leadership, as celibacy left women free to participate fully in the religious system without having to be distracted by childbearing. All authority in the church was hierarchical, but at each level men and women shared equal responsibility in equal numbers. This is especially evident in the fact that women have served as supreme head of the Shaker society throughout its existence, and in the fact that God was perceived by the Shakers to express both male and female characteristics. However, outside of the church, Shakers strictly adhered to traditional gender roles. As their homes were segregated by sex, so were men and women’s work spheres. Women worked almost exclusively indoors cooking, sewing, cleaning and washing, whereas men worked in the fields or shops. Shakers thus simultaneously elevated women’s status in society and reinforced the stereotypical vision of the weaker sex whose job lay in the home. Some have also argued that the very roots of celibacy are themselves misogynistic, in that men were abstaining from sex in order to dissociate themselves from woman’s original sin.
Shakers were known for a style of furniture, known as Shaker furniture. It was plain in style, durable, and functional. Shaker chairs were usually mass-produced since a great number of them were needed to seat all the Shakers in a community. Around the time of the American Civil War, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, NY, greatly increased their production and marketing of Shaker chairs. They were so successful that several furniture companies produced their own versions of "Shaker" chairs. Because of the quality of their craftsmanship, original Shaker furniture is costly. One Shaker chair, actually a tall stool, sold recently for just under US$100,000.
Shakers worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Many outsiders who witnessed Shaker worship services considered them heretics and protested in front of their places of worship. Mother Ann was arrested several times for disturbing the peace. Early Shaker worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, Shakers developed precision dances and orderly rituals. The Shakers have also written thousands of religious songs.
The meeting-houses were painted white and unadorned, with shutters and carvings eschewed as worldly things. The Shakers believed in the value of hard work and kept comfortably busy. Each member learned a craft and did chores. Mother Ann said, "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling."
One of the major attributes of the Shakers was to build. This combined with their dedication to hard work and perfection has resulted in a unique range of architecture, furniture and handicraft styles. They relied on their own skills and natural resources for all these as well as for providing for their family. Shakers designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, "an act of prayer." They never fashioned items with elaborate details or extra decorations, but only made things for their intended uses. The ladder-back chair was a popular piece of furniture. Shaker craftsmen made most things out of pine or other inexpensive woods and hence their furniture was light in color and weight. Shaker interior spaces are characterized by an austerity and simplicity. For example, they had a continuous wooden device like a pelmet with hooks running all along the lintel level from which they hung the very light furniture pieces such as chairs when not in use. The simple architecture of their homes, meeting houses, and barns have had a lasting influence on American architecture and design. There is a collection of furniture and utensils at Hancock Shaker Village (outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts) that is famous for its elegance and practicality.
Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Their industry brought about many inventions like the screw propeller, Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the flat broom and the wheel-driven washing machine. They were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets. Shaker dances and songs are a main, but largely unrecognized, aspect of folk art. Shaker ways influenced many people to write books and adopt ways of life from Shakers. By the middle of the twentieth century, as the Shaker communities themselves were disappearing, some American collectors whose visual tastes were formed by the stark aspects of the modernist movement found themselves drawn to the spare artifacts of Shaker culture, in which "form follows function" was also clearly expressed. Kaare Klint, an architect and famous furniture designer, used styles from Shaker furniture in his work. Another example is Doris Humphrey, an innovator in technique, choreography, and theory of dance movement. She made a full theatrical art with her dance entitled Dance of The Chosen Ones in which the nature of the Shakers' religious fervor was depicted.
Many of the lyrics to Shaker tunes consist of syllables and words from unknown tongues, the musical equivalent of glossolalia. It has been surmised that many of them were imitated from the sounds of Native American languages, as well as from the songs of African slaves, especially in the southernmost of the Shaker communities, but in fact the melodic material is derived from European scales and modes.
Most early Shaker music is monodic, that is to say, composed of a single melodic line with no harmonization. The tunes and scales recall the folksongs of the British Isles, but since the music was written down and carefully preserved, it is "art" music of a special kind rather than folklore. Many melodies are of extraordinary grace and beauty, and the Shaker song repertoire, though still relatively little known, is an important part of the American cultural heritage and of world religious music in general.
Several hymnbooks with more conventional four-part harmonization were published by the Shakers in the late nineteenth century. These works are less strikingly original than the earlier, monodic repertoire.
The surviving Shakers sing songs drawn from both the earlier repertoire and the four part songbooks. They perform all of these unaccompanied, in single-line unison singing. The many recent, harmonized arrangements of older Shaker songs for choirs and instrumental groups mark a departure from traditional Shaker practice.
The most famous Shaker song is "Simple Gifts", which Aaron Copland used as a theme for variations in Appalachian Spring. The tune was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine in 1848. Many contemporary Christian denominations incorporate this tune into hymnals, under various names, including "Lord of the Dance," adapted in 1963 by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter.
Some scholars, such as Daniel W. Patterson and Roger L. Hall, have compiled books of these songs, and groups have been formed to sing the songs and perform the dances. There are recordings available of Shaker songs, both documentation of singing by the Shakers themselves, as well as songs recorded by other groups (see external links). Two widely distributed commercial recordings by The Boston Camerata, "Simple Gifts" (1995) and "The Golden Harvest" (2000), were recorded at the Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with active cooperation from the surviving Shakers, whose singing can be heard at several points on both recordings.
Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, and although they did adopt up until the states gained control of adoption homes, this was not a major source of new members. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, and Canterbury, New Hampshire, the latter of which died with its last member, Ethel Hudson, in September 1992, have become museums.
Believers have continually looked at the story of Ann Lee as a cornerstone of the theological architecture that has distinguished their church from other American religious groups. Shaker theology, its manifestation in material artifacts such as furniture and oval boxes, and the Ann Lee story have continually drawn the attention of outsiders either fascinated or repulsed by them.
Although there were six thousand believers at the peak of the Shaker movement, there were only twelve Shakers left by 1920. In the United States there is one remaining active Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which as of 2008 has four members. The Sabbathday Lake community still accepts new recruits, as it has since its founding. Shakers are no longer allowed to adopt orphan children after new laws were passed in 1960 denying control of adoption to religious groups, but adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are welcome. This community, founded in 1783, was one of the smaller and more isolated Shaker communities during the sect's heyday. They farm and practice a variety of handicrafts; a Shaker Museum, and Sunday services are open to visitors. Now Mother Ann Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of August. The people sing and dance and a Mother Ann cake is presented. There is a legend that one of Mother Ann's predictions states that there will be a revival when there are only five Shakers left. However, there is no evidence to suggest Mother Ann stated this.
The daily schedule of a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Village is as follows:
The agreement does not specify whether the property will become a park, museum or other public space should the Shakers die out. That decision would be made by a nonprofit corporation—the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Inc.—whose board members are largely non-Shakers. The $3.7 million conservation plan relies on grants, donations and public funds.
Shaker lifestyle and tradition is celebrated in Arlene Hutton's play "As It Is in Heaven," which is a re-creation of a decisive time in the history of the Shakers. The play is written by Arlene Hutton, the pen name of actor/director Beth Lincks. Born in Louisiana and raised in Florida, Lincks was inspired to write the play after visiting the Pleasant Hills Shaker village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a restored community that the Shakers occupied for more than a century, before abandoning it in 1927 because of the inability of the sect to attract new converts.
In 2004 the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen and Boston Camerata music director Joel Cohen created a live performance work with dance and music entitled "Borrowed Light." While all the music is Shaker song performed in a largely tradition manner, the dance intermingles only certain elements of Shaker practice and belief with Saarinen's original choreographic ideas, and with distinctive costumes and lighting. "Borrowed Light" has been given almost forty performances since 2004 in seven countries, most recently (early 2008) in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2008, the rock band Weezer released its "Red Album" which includes a song entitled "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On a Shaker Hymn)," possibly including references to Shakers as well as Christianity. These references include the lines "I am the greatest man that ever lived. I was born to give,", and "I may not be here when you call, so best be givin’ me your all." The latter may be in reference to many evangelical Christians' beliefs that if one does not dedicate his or her entire life to Christ and his teachings, they may go to hell.
The Shakers also come from Africa and is made out of wood. It also is decorated by different designs which are carved into the wood as a 'Special Feature'
Alliance protects Shaker property ; Preservation groups buy the development rights, but the Shakers will still own and manage the site.
Feb 01, 2007; ANN S. KIM Staff Writer Portland Press Herald (Maine) 02-01-2007 Alliance protects Shaker property ; Preservation groups buy the...